John Haiman

Department of Linguistics, Macalester College




Prefixation, infixation, alliteration, and other iambic effects in Khmer


The iambic effect in Khmer is well-attested in the treatment of borrowed words from Indic languages. The degree of  reduction of an initial syllable is one very solid index of the degree to which such a word has been assimilated

One result of the iambic effect is that initial unstressed syllables are forever being "restored" -- originally in careful speech, and later, possibly via reinterpretation/exaptation, as (frequently nearly meaningless) infixes. This provides a plausible account for the most productive infix, -Vm(n)-.

The same alternation between full and reduced semi-syllables may be at the root of the alternation between two causative prefixes throughout M-K:  bVn-  and p-.  Semantically there is no plausible reason why both could not have derived from the success verb baan, which also has congeners throughout the family.

The pressure to reduce the initial syllable in sesquisyllabic roots may be responsible for reducing the initial word in asymmetric compounds (such as Auxiliary + Main verb).  However, it competes with another tendency: to maintain morphophonological symmetry between the elements of symmetrical compounds.  It seems that maintaining symmetry trumps the pressure for iambic stress in compounds of this type, whether the initial element of the compound is meaningful or purely decorative.